Information for Patients
What is shingles?
Shingles is an outbreak of rash or blisters on the skin. It is caused by the varicella-zoster virus - the same virus that causes chickenpox. After you have chickenpox, the virus stays in your body. It may not cause problems for many years. But as you get older, the virus may reappear as shingles.
Is shingles contagious?
Shingles is not contagious. But you can catch chickenpox from someone with shingles. If you've never had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine, try to stay away from anyone who has shingles.
If you have shingles, try to stay away from anyone who has not had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine, or anyone who might have a weak immune system.
Who is at risk for shingles?
Anyone who has had chickenpox is at risk for getting shingles. But this risk goes up as you get older; shingles is most common in people over age 50.
People with weakened immune systems are at higher risk of getting shingles. This includes those who
- Have immune system diseases such as HIV/AIDS
- Have certain cancers
- Take immunosuppressive drugs after an organ transplant
Your immune system may be weaker when you have an infection or are stressed. This can raise your risk of shingles.
It is rare, but possible, to get shingles more than once.
What are the symptoms of shingles?
Early signs of shingles include burning or shooting pain and tingling or itching. It is usually on one side of the body or face. The pain can be mild to severe.
One to 14 days later, you will get a rash. It consists of blisters that typically scab over in 7 to 10 days. The rash is usually a single stripe around either the left or the right side of the body. In other cases, the rash occurs on one side of the face. In rare cases (usually among people with weakened immune systems), the rash may be more widespread and look similar to a chickenpox rash.
Some people may also have other symptoms:
- Upset stomach
What are the complications of shingles?
Shingles can cause complications:
- Postherpetic neuralgia (PHN) is most common complication of shingles. It causes severe pain in the areas where you had the shingles rash. It usually gets better in a few weeks or months. But some people can have pain from PHN for many years, and it can interfere with daily life.
- Vision loss can happen if shingles affects your eye. It may be temporary or permanent.
- Hearing or balance problems are possible if you have shingles within or near your ear. You may also have weakness of the muscles on that side of your face. These problems can be temporary or permanent.
Very rarely, shingles can also lead to pneumonia, brain inflammation (encephalitis), or death.
How is shingles diagnosed?
Usually your health care provider can diagnose shingles by taking your medical history and looking at your rash. In some cases, your provider may scrap off tissue from the rash or swab some fluid from the blisters and send the sample to a lab for testing.
What are the treatments for shingles?
There is no cure for shingles. Antiviral medicines may help to make the attack shorter and less severe. They may also help prevent PHN. The medicines are most effective if you can take them within 3 days after the rash appears. So if you think you might have shingles, contact your health care provider as soon as possible.
Pain relievers may also help with the pain. A cool washcloth, calamine lotion, and oatmeal baths may help relieve some of the itching.
Can shingles be prevented?
There are vaccines to prevent shingles or lessen its effects. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that healthy adults 50 years and older get the Shingrix vaccine. You need two doses of the vaccine, given 2 to 6 months apart. Another vaccine, Zostavax, may be used in certain cases.
Shingles Shingles (also known as herpes zoster) results from infection by the varicella zoster virus. This common virus causes chickenpox (also known as varicella), which is characterized by itchy spots on the skin that cover the whole body and usually occurs in childhood or adolescence. After the body fights the initial infection, the varicella zoster virus remains in nerve cells for the rest of a person's life. Because the virus is controlled by immune system cells called T cells, it is generally inactive (latent) and typically causes no health problems. However, in some people, the virus becomes active again (reactivates) and causes shingles. Shingles can occur at any age, although it is rare in childhood and becomes more common after age 50.Shingles is characterized by a severely painful, itchy, or tingling rash, most commonly on one side of the torso, although it can occur anywhere on the body. Reactivation of the virus usually occurs in a single nerve, leading to the symptoms of shingles in just the region of skin connected to that nerve. When the nerve connected to the eye and the skin surrounding it is affected, the condition is called herpes zoster ophthalmicus. This form of shingles, which accounts for about 20 percent of cases, can cause permanent vision impairment.Some individuals with shingles feel throbbing or tingling in the affected region shortly before the rash appears. Blisters form in the rash area, break open, and scab over in a few days. Healing usually takes 2 to 4 weeks. Most people have only one episode of shingles, although it can recur in rare cases.In 5 to 20 percent of people with shingles, severe pain continues in the affected region after healing of the rash, which is known as postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). PHN is the most common complication of shingles. It can also involve severe itchiness or an overactive pain response to things that do not usually cause pain (allodynia), such as a light touch. PHN can last weeks, months, or even years. The likelihood of developing PHN after shingles and its severity increase with age. The pain caused by shingles and PHN can disrupt day-to-day activities and reduce a person's quality of life.